Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

It's easy to be fooled by the Sunday morning smiles. Are you willing to look behind the masks to reach people in your congregation who are drowning in emptiness and shame?

Mother, Churchgoer Murders Three Sons and Shoots Herself," screamed the headlines from a large Southern California newspaper. On the front page was a picture of the woman's 3,800-square-foot mountaintop estate, where she lived with her doctor husband. What made this Christian mother--who seemingly had it all--go crazy, kill her three sons and attempt to kill herself?

The newspaper account did not reveal anything regarding the state of the woman's marriage, her true psychological or spiritual health or if she was suffering from any form of biochemical depression. Interviews with her neighbors and church friends indicated that, at least outwardly, she had a perfect world and seemed to be very happy. Yet beneath this facade of happiness there was obviously a tremendous amount of inner pain that drove her over the brink.

On one level we can presume that it was the devil who attacked her mind and gave her the idea to murder her children and attempt to kill herself. After all, the apostle Peter instructs us, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8, NKJV).

This seemingly happy doctor's wife was, in reality, suffering in agonizing emotional emptiness and inner pain--an emptiness and pain that a very real devil exploited and used to destroy her and her family.

We live in a time where the disintegration of the family, marital unfaithfulness, modern stress and the effects of an out-of-control media culture are taking their toll on the people who come to our churches. Though most of the people who sit in our pews are not going to violently take their lives and the lives of their children, many of them are suffering nonetheless.

The reality is that far more people than we realize live at the breaking point psychologically. Thoughts of suicide, addictions, sexual immorality, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors, loneliness, adulterous relationships, alcohol and legal drug abuse run rampant and can be indications of a deep spiritual emptiness and emotional pain.

The spiritual attack of the enemy. As someone who has ministered extensively across the United States and who has the privilege of hosting a live Christian talk show in Southern California, I have talked with hundreds of people who have opened their lives--and their pain--to me. As part of a generation of Christian leaders who have been mobilized by the Holy Spirit to engage in spiritual warfare, we must understand that we are confronting a spiritual enemy who seeks to exploit this spiritual emptiness and emotional pain for his own purposes.

Satan uses spiritual emptiness and emotional pain to provide anchor points for sin, bondage and spiritual oppression in the human personality. The apostle Paul astutely instructs us: "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (Eph. 6:11).

Perhaps one of the greatest wiles, or strategies, of the devil in our time is the exploitation of the widespread emotional emptiness and inner pain that eats away at the lives of believers who are a part of our churches. We live in a day when each of us needs to allow the Holy Spirit to sensitize us to the hurt, pain and emptiness that is often hidden beneath the surface of the people we encounter on a daily basis.

Jesus spoke of the relationship between the empty places and spiritual oppression in Matthew 12:43-45: "'When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through the dry places, seeking rest and finding none. Then he says, "I will return to my house from which I came." And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there.'" (I am not suggesting that Christians can be demon possessed, but rather demonized or oppressed.)

In Matthew 18:34, Jesus makes reference to being given over to the torturers in relationship to a person who is unwilling to forgive the person who has hurt them. Here, too, we see a relationship between a demonic anchor point and unresolved hurt or emotional pain.

Although the tragic story of the prosperous, churchgoing, doctor's wife who killed her sons and attempted to commit suicide is an extreme one, there are probably countless women and men inside of our churches who have toyed with the idea of suicide and other dark fantasies. In a very real sense, these people are prey to demonic forces that are using the emotional emptiness as an entry point to establish spiritual oppression and bondage.

We are in a season where the Spirit of God is opening our ears to the sound of what is going on in people's hearts. Many who come through our church doors are crying out from the depths of their soul. And their cries stem from spiritual oppression that has afflicted them and exploited the deep, emotional pain in their lives. This is not always easy to hear or see because even in Spirit-filled churches there can be a well-established culture of the denial of pain and emotional reality.

Instead of facing reality, we have our contemporary "fig leaves" of counterfeit transparency and manufactured "happy-face Christian smiles." The words of Jesus to the Laodicean Church in the Book of Revelation have fresh meaning for our time: "'...that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see'" (Rev. 3:18).

Discerning bondage in our churches. The Holy Spirit wants us to see the spiritual shackles and chains in our midst for the purpose of breaking them. Acts 10:38 says: "'How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.'"

The Holy Spirit is not only opening our ears and eyes, but He is summoning us to a pointed confrontation with these powers of darkness in order to set captives free and "to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke'" (Is. 58:6).

The reality is that in many congregations, both the leadership and the people perceive this lack of real intimacy and fellowship. But as soon as these thoughts enter our consciousness, they are pushed aside or suppressed because they are disturbing and require us to change. The tragedy is that there are times when the local assembly becomes somewhat like a dysfunctional family, where real feelings become suppressed or denied.

What then follows is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. On one hand we see rejoicing, uplifted hands and to varying degrees the move of the Holy Spirit. But beneath the surface in many people's hearts there are swirling pockets of emotions that we attempt to hide: hurt, pain, frustration, loneliness, anger, depression and other things. To the discerning eye our worship often rings hollow and a subtle air of unreality permeates the atmosphere.

Critics of charismatic and renewal meetings are sometimes right when they say our meetings smack of shamanism and emotional hype. We have all been in meetings or watched a televised service where the emotional frenzy was high, but the Holy Spirit seemed sadly distant. The truth is that beneath the hype and glitter, many are leaving these meetings empty and lonely.

The symptoms of spiritual emptiness. Men and women tend to manifest the symptoms of inner turmoil differently. In women, emptiness and inner pain may manifest through so-called acceptable behaviors such as busyness, cleaning, shopping, eating and fantasizing. These behaviors are not evil in and of themselves; but often they are psychological escape mechanisms for denying emotional isolation and inner pain--the nagging sense of being cut off, alone, disenfranchised, rejected and isolated inside our Christian families, marriages and churches.

Some women may overeat because they are starving for emotional nourishment. They deny and suppress their real feelings of being lonely, cut off and disconnected. As the pain of these emotions intensifies, they can enter the darker worlds of depression, prescription pills, adulterous affairs (either real or imagined), anger and even suicide. And each step of the way a real devil is there, constantly pulling them into deeper and deeper spiritual bondage and oppression.

Many men in our churches also suffer from emotional emptiness and inner pain. Although men are usually not as in touch with their emotions as women, the destructive cycles are still at work. Men can become overeaters, workaholics or obsessed with their careers, sports or television. They may even turn to secret addictions with pornography on the Internet or videos, affairs or prescription drugs, eventually deserting their wives and children.

Today, Christian men who cheat on their wives--either through illicit relationships or pornography--are doing so in epidemic numbers. Spiritual warfare has been waged successfully against the church. The church has been assaulted and subverted by the enemy without even fully realizing it. We must, as Paul said, understand the wiles of the devil.

Satan's attack against pastors and church leaders. We need to understand that the strategy Satan is seeking to use against us is the direct exploitation by the powers of darkness of emotional emptiness and inner pain that are not being adequately addressed.

This spiritual warfare against believers is especially targeted at leaders, who also are susceptible to emotional drain, emptiness and the wearying emotions that being on the front lines brings. It is no accident that the statistics on pastors and church leaders who are watching pornography on the Internet are alarmingly high.

Pastors and church leaders are often experiencing the same emptiness that the people in the pews are feeling. There are too many accounts of spiritual leaders who have succumbed to the lies and deception of the enemy. They leave their wives and children in vain pursuit of an illicit relationship that offers the false promise of filling the emptiness only the Spirit of God can fill.

Our counterattack strategy: fellowship. In addition to opening up to a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there are some specific strategies the Bible gives us regarding the restoration of people in divinely sanctioned human relationships. The Book of Acts gives us very clear instructions on how to combat spiritual attack: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42, emphasis added). The answer that I believe the Holy Spirit is trying to communicate to the church is wrapped up in getting and understanding a revelation of what the word fellowship means.

Biblical fellowship comes from the word koinonia, which means sharing, unity, close association, partnership or a communion of believers. It means emotional connection, intimacy and real personal friendship among believers in Jesus Christ. It is also interesting to note that fellowship is talked about in the context of "breaking of bread."

Fellowship is to be something very personal and warm, like when good friends eat together. The difference between fellowship and friendship is that fellowship is a relationship between believers who share their common life in Christ. It is a holy and human relationship that invites the presence of God into the center of our lives.

Friendship is more of an earthly and human interaction where ideas, feelings and life are shared. Fellowship--not just friendship--has the capacity to heal deep hurts and emptiness.

Remember the TV show Cheers, where the opening song said something about a place where "everyone knows your name"? The bar in Cheers was about worldly friendship. But the success of this hit TV sitcom came from the fact that it touched on the need in the TV audience for closeness, friendship and a sense of belonging.

The need for belonging. In many of our churches, people often lack a sense of belonging. They are emotionally isolated and disconnected. There is enormous emotional emptiness and pain, which is covered up by superficial and glib relationships.

Even in the so-called "revival" churches, where powerful encounters with the Holy Spirit are welcomed, many individuals have their own private experiences with God; but often, they find themselves isolated and disconnected from others. Once the freshness of the experience wears off, people are left with loneliness and emotional pain.

The need for genuine sharing. Much of what passes for Christian fellowship is like riding around in bumper cars, awkwardly colliding into one another with social clichés and middle-class politeness. There is not a real sharing of souls or the life of the Spirit. Charismatic, Pentecostal and renewal churches are tempted to manufacture this kind of so-called fellowship.

The sad truth is that many times, people are more comfortable being slain in the Spirit or caught up in emotional experiences rather than really talking and connecting to one another. But emotionalism, hype and human manipulation cannot open the way for the Holy Spirit to unite His people in true Christian fellowship and spiritual intimacy. There must be a genuine willingness and desire to wait upon and open up to an authentic move of the Spirit of God. A move of God's Spirit can actually be hindered by attempts to counterfeit it.

As Bible-believing Christians, we recognize that we live in a universe with a personal God who has created each of us in His own image. This makes our relationships with each other and God profoundly different than the relationships of those who, like humanists or New Age adherents, believe in a nonpersonal universe. The result of those belief systems is that human relationships are without any real meaning. This is one of the messages of the recent Academy Award-winning movie American Beauty, which celebrates immorality in an absurd universe.

The need to confront emptiness with koinonia. As Christian leaders, God has given us the awesome privilege of not only healing the emptiness in our churches, but also of confronting the demonic powers which seek to exploit that emptiness. Not only has God given us the dunamis power of His Holy Spirit, but He has taught us how to restore intimacy with God and each other with the practice of koinonia.

The thrilling news is that bondages can be broken in the power of Jesus' name and spiritual oppression lifted, and there can be a mighty advance of the kingdom of God. As we move out faithfully in obedience to His Word, not only will we be set free, but we will experience a powerful outpouring of the Spirit that will result in an increase of souls being saved as well as a bursting of our sanctuaries and meeting places with added numbers of people who have been filled with this new wine.

In Acts 2:42-47 we see the relationship between fellowship and the reality that "the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." Good news travels fast as people are set free. The church needs to get ready for those who will come to hear this good news.

Paul and Kristina McGuire are conference and seminar speakers and the authors of Heal Your Past & Change Your Marriage (Creation House). Paul is the host of the daily live radio talk show Home Builders, heard on KBRT on the Crawford Broadcasting Network.

How You Can Help the Hurting

As a leader you can create an environment that will facilitate healing.

*Allow the Holy Spirit to sensitize you to the hidden hurts, needs, conflicts and pain of others. Without prying or being pushy or paranoid, allow the Lord to speak to you about the people you minister to and meet. We live in a world of social pleasantries where people often do not disclose their true emotional states. In addition, we are not called to fix everyone's problems.

However, if we train ourselves, we can be open to a word or impression from the Lord. Eye contact, a smile, an affirming or encouraging word or a hug can minister healing in ways far deeper than you might think.

*Teach on true biblical fellowship. We cannot assume that the people we minister to have biblical and adequate social or people skills. Many men and women who are extremely capable in the business world or in their communities fall short in the area of what could be called "Holy Spirit people skills." This requires a sensitivity to both the Holy Spirit and to the hidden emotional and spiritual needs of others. But often the development of this kind of spiritual sensitivity must be taught and encouraged.

*Start and continue the use of small-group meetings and cell groups. In the intimacy of people's homes, emotional pain, hurt and emptiness can be ministered to by effectively trained home-group leaders. The key is sensitivity and discernment.

The temptation in home-group meetings is for people to either talk simply about football or the kids, or to go through some kind of mechanized system and completely miss what the Holy Spirit is trying to do. People don't wear their trials and pain on lapel tags; but if the leaders have been properly trained, they can help facilitate what the Spirit wants to do instead of getting in the way or hindering Him.

Be aware that some people's needs are so great that they can easily manipulate a meeting to revolve around them time after time. Other people who have genuine needs can be ignored if this continues. Great care and leadership must be exercised in this area. Such an individual may need a one-on-one meeting with a qualified Christian counselor or pastor. They should be directed into such a situation for follow-up.

*Make room for a breakthrough from the Holy Spirit. God did not call the church to become a sensitivity workshop where we desperately attempt to heal each other's wounds with human energy. He did call us to be sensitive to the voice of His Spirit and to each other.

The continual flow of the Spirit and the welcoming of His presence through worship makes room for a breakthrough from the Holy Spirit. Spiritual oppression is lifted, bondages are broken and emptiness is filled by regular, fresh encounters with the Holy Spirit. There is no substitute for new outpourings of the Spirit of God.

Peter quoted the prophet Joel in Acts 2:17: "'"And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh"'" (NKJV). Most of us can point to a distinct time when we were filled with or baptized in the Holy Spirit. But individually and corporately, we must regularly experience fresh infillings of the Spirit. It is this outpouring that fills people's emptiness and severs the cords of bondage.

*Utilize the gifts of the Spirit. God has given us the gifts of the Spirit to accomplish His purposes. Spiritual oppression, bondage, emptiness, emotional pain and even the works of darkness can be strategically dealt with when we employ the gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor. 12:1).

*Become a pastoral leader who others can trust with their inner emotions and lives. If we demonstrate that we really care and that we can be trusted, people will open up their innermost concerns to us. Many opportunities to minister will come our way if people sense that we really love them, and that we will not betray their confidence.

*Be accepting. We have all experienced the pain of being rejected and encountering those with critical and judgmental spirits. Subtle self-righteousness and pharisaical attitudes not only suppress people, they also build up walls in relationships. We may not be aware of it, but we may be projecting these subtle attitudes toward others.

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